The CEO and Founder of Getaway Explains How He Learned to Unplug and Say No

“By saying ‘no’ to more things, I can more fully show up.”

All Rights Reserved to Michelle Watt.
All Rights Reserved to Michelle Watt.

Jon Staff is a master of unplugging — so much so that he founded (and is CEO of) Getaway, the wellness hospitality company dedicated to providing mindful escapes from big cities. The company was born of Staff’s passion for combating burnout, spending time in nature, and disconnecting from technology

Staff’s mission is help people to get back to the basics and disconnect from an “always on” mentality. Here, Staff tells Thrive about how he practices mindfulness by monitoring his tech use,  saying “no,” and regularly getting away.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Jon Staff: The first thing I do after hitting snooze a few times is head to the kitchen to make a French Press of coffee. I have a hard rule that I don’t check my phone before I at least make coffee, take a shower, and pour a bowl of cereal. 

TG: What gives you energy?

JS: I love walking around the city — I am lucky that I get to commute on foot, and can turn a lot of my meetings into walking meetings. Our office is near Fort Greene Park, which is a great escape in the middle of the workday. 

On weekends, I love to escape the city — sometimes to the Catskills, sometimes to Fire Island, sometimes farther away if I have a work or friend trip scheduled. I always try to make sure to schedule time in nature wherever I go.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?

JS: I use an app called DNDEmail. It prevents email from coming into my inbox after a certain time each day and on the weekends. It is great because it solves for the mindless refresh problem — if I absentmindedly check my email when I should be focused on other things, there is nothing there.  I’ve also turned off almost all push notifications so that I am choosing what I interact with rather than having my attention constantly clawed after. 

Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

JS: Never. The blue light really does affect my sleep, and I prefer to fall asleep to a crossword section of the newspaper. 

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

JS: To be honest, I’m feeling a little burned out right now. The holidays were great but required a lot of moving around. With the holidays and work travel, I was in ten cities in January. It’s just too much. On top of that the news cycle is exhausting at best.

I’m fortunate enough to run a company that is focused on helping stave off burnout and giving people the time, space, and permission to be off. Part of that, I think, is the honest realization that the goal can’t be perfect balance on a daily or hourly time frame — but that we have to commit to balancing peaks and valleys, and work to smooth them over time. I am on my own journey here. I am exercising for the first time in my life and have returned to therapy — it’s helping. 

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?  

JS: The last company I was involved with starting was a flop. We spent a year trying to get it off of the ground, but it went nowhere. While there were a lot of reasons, I think the most critical mistake was that we were chasing the next big thing, not anything we actually cared about or deeply wanted to exist in the world. I was able to take all of my experience and key learnings and apply it to Getaway, which surely has had its own challenges but is a mission I care about very much.

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?

JS: Life is short, but longer than you think it is when you’re 22. Take the time to be spontaneous. Don’t optimize every moment of every month. Try to learn quickly to accept what you cannot control.

TG: Do you have any role models for living a thriving life?

JS: I have been a lifelong Mr. Rogers fan. He committed himself so deeply to his cause of childhood education and did so seemingly without regard for all of the reasons he was unlikely to succeed. He was so consistent in his behavior. He reminds me of the recently passed Clay Christensen’s adage: “It’s easier to hold your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold them 98% of the time.” That is an admirable way to live, and brings a great deal of inner peace.

TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?

JS: I belong to a curling league. Each Wednesday during the winter, my boyfriend and I go to Prospect Park and throw 44 pound stones down a 150 foot sheet of ice with our teammates. I never want to go — my mind is either spinning from work, or ready to resign to the sofa — but once I get out there I find it to be just the right amount of focus to calm me down while not being so strenuous as to completely deplete me or distract me from processing the day. 

TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?

JS: It’s a bit of a trope, but everything really is a learning opportunity. I can’t think of the last time something bad happened to me or to Getaway and it was just bad. Negative moments can sometimes lead to unexpectedly good outcomes and always lead to personal growth. That isn’t comforting when I’m in the grips of such a moment, but I’ve tried to decrease the time between being in a bad spot and recognizing the growth that can come of it. 

TG: What brings you optimism? 

JS: Every day I hear incredible stories from our guests about how they spent time unplugged in nature. Things like “my kid and I saw a shooting star for the first time,” or “I reconnected with my partner after years of not really talking,” or “we got engaged,” or even “this is the last trip I took before I began chemotherapy.” These stories about people reconnecting with their humanity in quiet moments — and those folks willingness to share those stories with me — is something that brings me endless optimism.

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit? 

JS: I started saying “no” to more things. I noticed that I was the person that would say “yes” to every social engagement, every obligation, and every favor asked. And for me, that’s draining. There are certainly people that can take all of that on, but I needed to acknowledge for myself, that it wasn’t good for me, and even more importantly, wasn’t allowing me to show up to any of those things fully. By saying “no” to more things, I can more fully show up and connect to the things that I do have time and space for in my life. Sustaining the habit can be hard — it is easier in the moment to say yes than no (I call this “throwing my future self under the bus”) but for me it is worth it. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your focus. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit?

JS: I don’t carry a cell phone or laptop everywhere I go. When I’m in a meeting, I rarely bring my devices. When I go out to dinner with my partner, I often leave my phone at home. The first order benefit of this is that I am not rude to others by ignoring them in favor of whatever is popping up on my screen, but the second order benefit of being device-less is that I am not constantly calculating if it is a good time to sneak in a look, or feeling buzzes in my pocket. I feel naked for the first few minutes, and then I feel freer and more focused. 

TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

JS: When I was 25, I burned out completely. I had all of the symptoms you might imagine. To feel better, I daydreamed about quitting my job and traveling the country in an Airstream trailer. Here’s the magic of repeating your daydreams to people: It helps them come true. After talking about it to everyone but doing nothing to make it happen, a friend of a friend offered her Airstream trailer to me as long as I had it back by Burning Man. My bluff was called, and away I went. Five months and 8,000 miles later, I thought differently about my work, my personal life, and myself. 

TG: What’s your evening routine that helps you unwind and go to sleep? 

JS: I try to put my phone down around 9. My boyfriend and I are suckers for Netflix — we are sad to see “Schitt’s Creek” end. After an episode or two, we’ll read or do a crossword puzzle. If it’s been a particularly stressful day, I might take a bath and read a magazine. Then it’s lights out.

TG: What is your key piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

JS: People disagree on this but I have a strong feeling: You have to work on something that you personally want to exist in the world and want to be a customer of. I think that is the only surefire way to endure the ups-and-downs that are part of every startup without losing your true north.  

TG: How do you ensure that Getaway’s mission starts from within the company?

JS: There are very obvious ways we do this: All Getaway employees go to a Getaway Outpost on their own, we have our mission written on the walls of the office, etc. Then there are less obvious ones: We have a long list of “working norms” like leaving tech out of meetings and allowing each other deep work time. Most importantly, we take our guests seriously and talk about their stories — good, bad, and personal — all of the time. 

TG: What are some ways you incorporate the mission into your office culture? 

JS: Every Getaway employee starts each morning by reading guest feedback. It helps us improve, motivates us, reminds us that what we are doing is meaningful to our guests, and helps us never lose sight of the humanity of Getaway. 

Tactically, we have made vacation mandatory for full time employees. Most Americans don’t take all of their vacation days, which is a shame, and “unlimited vacation” is an oxymoron that leads to more confusion and “work martyrdom.” Generally, we allow everyone to work from wherever they are going to be most productive. We encourage people to stay offline during their off time. When you are on vacation, you are required to set an autoresponder so you are less tempted to jump into your inbox. In addition to mandatory vacation, we offer one Friday off a month which we call Getaday — it’s like an extra holiday to balance some of the other days where people are giving a bit extra of themselves. 

TG: Startup culture is full of ups and downs. What brings you calm in times of chaos? 

JS: Taking breaks. The reality is that startups really can be tough. We’ve all had to work weekends or late nights here and there. We do our best to make sure that this isn’t the norm, but there’s always room for improvement. For us, it feels particularly important and challenging because we are a fast growth company with a mission of helping people to slow down. The best we have come up with, adopted from sports, is that we want to have periods of meaningful effort followed by periods of meaningful rest. I think and hope folks at Getaway love their jobs and want to do their best on behalf of our guests. Among other things, this naturally leads employees to want to give work their all. But we all know that there is — has to be — more than work in life. If you work all of the time, not only are you shortchanging life, but also shortchanging work as you burn out and become less energetic, less creative, and less collaborative. We try hard to make sure people take real breaks.  Speaking personally, that has been key for me to survive all of this craziness for now more than five years. 

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